Elemental: Fallen Enchantress Interview

Article

posted 5/3/2011 by Charles Husemann
other articles by Charles Husemann
We talked to Derek Paxton late last year when he joined Stardock.  We decided to follow up with him to see how things were going with his new job and to see what info we could get on his upcoming game.

Could you introduce yourself and talk about your role at Stardock?
I am Derek Paxton, lead producer and lead designer for Fallen Enchantress. Professionally I was a project manager for a business software company, and in my spare time I created a dark fantasy mod for Civilization IV called Fall from Heaven. I contacted Stardock as I was looking into my next fun project and they offered me a job that allowed me to combine my career and my love for strategy games. I joined Stardock in November 2010, and started immediately on Fallen Enchantress.


So how have things been since you started at Stardock? What kinds of changes have you implemented since you got there?
The biggest change has been in formalizing processes around production. Previously Stardock's games team was a small but successful part of Stardock's total business. Although Stardock had excellent management of the business side, the games side was less defined. Now everyone understands the end goal, and that goal doesn't change. Everyone understands the schedule and what part of the puzzle they are responsible for.

I love working at Stardock. There are great and talented people here, and we get to make the games we want to play. We don't have to hit specific timeframes in order to meet quarterly revenue goals. We don't have to make a game that will appeal to everyone.



Have you made any changes to the way games are made at Stardock? Are you using any Agile techniques (Scrum)?
I don't believe that there are miracles to be found in any of the software development methods, especially in teams our size (about 12 members). Management is determined by the project and we borrow from any methodology (or make up our own) to improve it.

We do have 10 minute morning meetings every day. And they are 10 minutes. I was fairly rude about cutting off tangents in the beginning (sorry team) but now we meet, we go through the days plans and we are on our way. So that's a piece stolen from the Agile method.

But overall I would say that the waterfall method best describes us. We have our fixed phases, and people understand that what is acceptable in one phase (for example pitching system change ideas) can't happen in another.


Stardock recently sold off their Impulse digital distribution system, has that had any impact on your development team at all in the form of additional resources and focus yet or not?
Derek: Nothing right now. The games team has been independent of the impulse side except for an occasional borrowing of a game developer to help with some code. The biggest impact of the sale is yet to come and I'm excited that Stardock's focus will be more on the games team. We are growing the games team, we have the budget to do so and it allows us to take the time to make great games.



With the issues that plagued the launch of the last game do you feel like you have to meet a higher set of expectations than you would with a normal launch? What do you say to those who might feel burned by their experience with the launch of the last game?
The highest expectations I have to deal with are from Brad. At GDC he was targeting an 82 metacritic score for Fallen Enchantress. Every day that number went up one. Last I heard Brad talking about it he was somewhere in the 90's.

To those that feel burned on War of Magic I love that Stardock has committed to giving them a free copy of Fallen Enchantress (if they bought before 12/31/2010) and both expansions if they bought before October 31st, 2010. Stardock also kept the full games team on War of Magic for months after the games release. It was this commitment to doing the right thing for their fans that convinced me to come to Stardock.

Is work on War of Magic complete or are you spending some development resources on it?
As I write this we are getting the War of Magic 1.2 patch ready and we have plans for a 1.3 patch. Stardock is still committed to supporting and improving War of Magic.


Could you give us a high level overview of the plot of Fallen Enchantress? Safe to assume there’s an enchantress to save somewhere in the game?
As with most turn based strategy games the meat of the game is in random world games, so the plot is up to the player and the unique situations of that game. But the game does include a campaign as well. Stardock hired professional author Dave Stern to help write the plot and events, and Jon Shafer is in charge of the campaign's game play to make sure it is fun.

I don't want to spoil the plot except to say that it does allow the player to explore the world of Elemental in a new way and see a side of the highlighted factions and characters that wouldn't be told in the random game.



Why the decision to make this a stand-alone game rather than an add-on? Was this a marketing decision or a technical decision or both?
Add-on expansions are a business model for boxed software. They allow the player who has purchased the prior game to buy the expansion at a discount (since it's just the expansion price) while the player who doesn't own the prior game has to buy both. There is some technical hoops you have to jump through to make that work.

In a digital distribution world that process is easier. Since we have the records of everyone who has purchased the prior game we can simply give a discount to them on the price of the expansion. We don't have to install one over the other, mix codebases or require the player to install two products in order to play.

From a product perspective it works well since Fallen Enchantress changes so many systems that it is a fundamentally different game than War of Magic. The old model adding some assets and a few mechanics to make an expansion doesn't work here.


Could you talk about the changes to the combat system of the game? Why did you decide to make the changes and what other alternatives did you consider?
We considered removing tactical combat entirely. There were no sacred cows in our design, if it didn't make the game fundamentally better then it was removed.

But in the end we decided that tactical combat was an important part of what Elemental was. There were 3 main focuses for Fallen Enchantress, and tactical combat was one of them (improving the world and magic are the other two).

At a system level we switched to a unit based initiative system (instead of an entire team moving at once). This allows the player to make smaller, more focused decisions. We also separated movement from combat speed. In the old system if a unit had 6 combat speed he could move 6 spaces, attack 6 times or a combination of the two. That made combat speed a god stat, since allowing more attacks multiplys a units damage. Now we can have high movement units without making them killing machines (or make really slow killing machines).

But those are just the supporting systems. Where the game comes alive is with the implementation of the units you fight with, and the monsters you fight against. There are more special abilities. For example the Maul ability allows a unit to continue attacking a victim until he misses, with a cumulative -3 to accuracy with each attack. This is an ability that's given to Bears, Cave Bears and Garrote's. It can also be granted by some magical items such as the Berserker's Axe. This a powerful ability against units with a low dodge, especially when used by units with a high accuracy and a bit of luck.

Stalkers have the charge ability that gives them +3 to movement and attack for the first round of combat. Spellcasters can cast Mantle of Flames that does fire damage to anyone attacking them. Units can be summoned into tactical combat. The Touch of Entropy spell does damage and raises any victim killed by it as a demon under the casters control. Given enough time enemy Ritualists can summon powerful Death Demons into battle. Dragons have Overpower, which multiplies their damage by the amount of units in the defending tile (so entire armies can be wiped out). Unique multi-tile enemies like Morian, the Ruin of Summer, will need armies of high level units and champions to defeat.


How have you changed the magic system of the game? What kind of new spells can we expect to see?
Magic was one of our 3 focus's for Fallen Enchantress. I gave some examples of spells in the above. We have spells that allow your sovereign to sacrifice his essence to power his champions, and spells which allow your sovereign to sacrifice his champions to make himself more powerful. Spells that change the world, and spells that allow players that store up enough mana to destroy the world in all sorts of interesting ways.

Seeing a player with a huge amount of mana stored should be like seeing an opponent with a stockpile of nuclear weapons. It's not good.



The dev team seems to be bringing in the “big guns” here in the late stages, such as Jon Shafer and David Stern... what benefit(s) do you feel their experience is bringing to the project?
I wouldn't call it the late stages. Both Jon and Dave have had a huge influence on the design of Fallen Enchantress. Dave Stern is a professional fantasy author and has worked in the world of Elemental before (he wrote the Hiergamenon, the lorebook that came with the collector's edition of the game). So he was very familiar with the history. In Fallen Enchantress we wanted to delve into some new territory, really looking into the world itself, and some massive unique creatures that are within it. He helped merge the game ideas with the lore, and filled out creative details from the diplomacy conversations, to monster history, to faction and leader descriptions.

Jon Shafer is a world class game designer and we are very lucky to have him on the project. He reads and offers feedback on all the design aspects of the game and has been instrumental at finding elegant ways to break complex systems down into simple mechanics. When you are deep into design it's hard to see the forest for the trees. Jon's the guy that suggests a change that is so fundamental that it makes you want to kick yourself for not seeing it before.


Social gaming has become big over the last year, any chance we’ll see an Elemental Facebook or web based game?
Platform isn't as important as the type of games we want to make. I suppose anything is possible if it is a good medium for the game we want to make or the story we want to tell.



There are a lot of strategy games coming out in the next year, how do you think Fallen Enchantress competes with them? Are you at all worried about facing that much competition?
We appeal to hardcore gamers. These aren't the type of players that will buy one game a year. We want more great strategy games, especially on the PC. We want more people playing and thinking about strategy games, even if they aren't ours. It isn't about how many strategy gamers are playing our games, it's about how many gamers are playing strategy games.

Plus we really like playing strategy games, no matter who makes them.


Is there anything we missed that you think is important?
It's fun to talk about game mechanics. But I have been really impressed with the work the art team has done to make the game look great. The UI has been rebuilt from scratch, the monsters look amazing (including some of the old monsters that are getting facelifts), and paintings are beautiful. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to imagine a fantasy world and amazing artists like those at Stardock bring it to life.


I can’t wrap this interview with asking about when and if we’ll see Galactic Civilization III? Can you at least confirm that it’s on the development radar at Stardock?
Right now we are just concentrating on making Fallen Enchantress as good as possible.


We'd like to thank Derek for answering our questions as well as Stephanie for helping to coordinate the interview.